The subject of tackling in school rugby has hit the news channels this week. The ‘Sport Collision Injury Collective’ published an open letter calling for the replacement of tackling in rugby with touch. Their simple message was ‘prevent injury, remove contact’. Listening in to the debate, I have been struck by the dubious quality of some of the reporting and the lack of understanding of school sports at the ‘coal face’ by some of the commentators.
For all that the risks have been discussed, I decided to work out the facts of my own experience as a coach. I have coached rugby now for 19 seasons. In that time, I have coached five, hour long sessions a week (six if you include club rugby at the weekends) for a typical 14 week season. This equates to 1,330 hours of coaching or refereeing rugby at prep school level. Multiply this by an average coaching group of 15 and this represents very nearly 20,000 pupil hours of rugby. And in that time, I have dealt with no injury more serious that a bloody nose, a bruise or a stubbed finger. So yes, we have had a few knocks but, thankfully, nothing serious to date. Most of the kids that have had those knocks have picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and continued with the game. Not a bad metaphor for life? That is not to say that more serious injuries don’t happen, we know that sadly they do from time to time. However, it is to say that the risk at prep school level should be put into perspective.
At a meeting this week with a group of Scottish IAPS Heads, the question was asked whether we should fight to defend rugby and keep tackling in the game. We concluded that it was important because sport in general and rugby in particular teaches many valuable life lessons. We agreed that the positives for rugby being a contact sport far outweigh any inherent risks. We know that the sport brings many physical and social benefits, including increased confidence, self-esteem and self-discipline, and enjoyable physical exercise as part of a team. It plays an important role in developing character. Young people develop positive traits, such as fair play, leadership and resilience, and learn how to bounce back from defeat, how to respect others and how to work together in teams to achieve a goal.
So how do we move forward? Well, presuming we have a choice, we continue to manage the risks carefully as we do in all areas of school life. Safety is paramount when running sessions. We introduce the tackle very gradually and we teach proper technique carefully. And we do this precisely because the game is physically challenging and can be testing. The result is that our pupils learn respect for others. They learn how to cope with adversity by bouncing back. And, of course, because this is rugby, at the end of the game there are handshakes and cheers.
John F Gilmour